England & Wales Personal and organisational development

Taking up the slack


Recently, ‘Slack’ became a verb at LGiU. And not in the sense of slacking off. We’ve banned email between LGiU staffers and started using Slack* to communicate instead, writes Charlotte Maddix.

A few of us had been using Slack on the sly to chat about specific projects. As chief executives will do, our chief executive noticed what we were up to. He immediately saw the potential for LGiU. We’re a small organisation, but we’re based around the UK (Edinburgh, Norwich, Shropshire, London) and we travel. We travel a lot. We’re also pretty chatty. As you’d expect from a think tank, we like to hash things out both in person and over email. We’re also a very busy organisation, with a multitude of projects and events throughout the year. As a membership organisation, we also like to react quickly when our members have questions or requests. This usually requires input from multiple team members. All too often, email doesn’t feel designed for any of these tasks.

So we jettisoned internal email. This change needed both buy-in from staff and an edict from the top. Those of us who had been using it were already diehard Slack converts.

Some of the consequences of this change were immediate. Overnight, our inboxes cleared out. Long threads about press releases? Gone. Confusing back-and-forth conversations with multiple people chipping in and skipping emails? Vanished. Instead, Slack lets you organise your conversations into different channels (#events, #general, #staffnews).

Our email inboxes are now all about conversations with members, clients and stakeholders. The important emails are easier to spot and deal with. However, during the local elections, we used Slack to coordinate our election coverage with Democracy Club (also Slack-users).

We’ve got a few ground rules for using Slack. One of the most important is keeping the different channels clean. Not in the swearing sense – but keeping them free of chatter that doesn’t belong. Anyone can create their own channel and invite others – or let others discover it. You can also have private channels between two or more people. A quick look at our statistics page reveals that we use private channels almost as much as public ones.

We’ve also invested some time in connecting up all the different web apps we use to run the day to day business of LGiU. There’s a live feed of people subscribing and unsubscribing to our mailing lists. A #twitter channel displays all our tweets. You can upload files from Google Drive or Dropbox, which were already in use at LGiU.

It’s also helped our Scottish team – who run a completely separate service, LGiU Scotland – keep up with what everyone else is up to. We’re considering using it to communicate with our network of briefing associates, using Slack’s ‘single channel guest’ feature. Perhaps we could even use it to communicate with our members.

LGiU is a friendly, creative place to work. We like to joke around. When this was happening on email, it could be very distracting – you’ve got emails coming in from external partners alongside jokes from your co-workers. Email inboxes don’t tend to distinguish between the two. In Slack, we have an entire channel set aside for the funny stuff. Especially for a team which is spread out across the country, it’s important to make space for humour.

(The most recent posts in the #random channel? Some videos of beer-related songs in advance of our event with CAMRA at LGA conference this summer. A discussion about the best way to change from the Victoria line to the Northern line at King’s Cross (hint: the signs always lie). Bee murder.)

There have been challenges, of course. For part time workers it can be tricky to catch up. On email, there’s often helpful summaries and long paragraphs. On Slack, things happen fast. At busy times there can be a cacophony of voices debating and deciding. The email summaries that Slack offers, showing you all the activity that’s happened during the day, are helpful here.

Another challenge is getting everyone to use it. Slack is sort of an ‘all or nothing’ solution: either all your colleagues use it, or there’s no point. We wouldn’t go that far. New technologies can take a while to sink in, and there’s little point in getting too wound up about a few stray emails.

Ultimately, Slack makes online conversation with the team at LGiU a whole lot easier and more natural. Less gets lost along the way and – hopefully – we’re now more productive as a result.

*Other apps are available. Probably.

Charlotte Maddix is LGiU’s Partnership Development Officer.